Content: Ms. Marvel (1977), Issues 1-14
Writers: Gerry Conway (1-3), Chris Claremont (3-14), Archie Goodwin (5), Jim Shooter (5)
Pencillers: John Buscema (1-3), Jim Mooney (4-8, 13), Keith Pollard (9), Sal Buscema (10-12), Carmine Infantino (14)
Inkers: Joe Sinnott (1-9, 12, 13), Sam Grainger (9), Tom Palmer (10), Frank Giacoia (11), Steve Leialoha (14)
Letterers: John Costanza (1, 3, 5, 6, 8-10, 14), Joe Rosen (2, 7, 11), Irving Watanabe (4), Annette Kawecki (12), Pete Iro (13)
There were two characters that got me reading comics again, back in the early 10s. X-23 was one of them; the other was Captain Marvel (Carol Danvers, to be clear to the DC fans). I first heard of X-23 as “kind of like Wolverine, but a girl.” By the way, this is a terrible way to recommend a comic; “like the dude, only with boobs” is reductionist and not useful in any way. Knowing what I know now, I’d (first of all!) call her Laura Kinney. I’d talk about her origin story as a sort-of clone of Wolverine, but that she had a rich and vibrant backstory of questioning her identity and her purpose, who she was and what she could become, and what to do with the legacy of a man she never asked for. All the teenage pathos you can stuff into one character, combined with razor sharp claws and a healing factor better than Wolverine’s. I’d hand someone her solo title by Marjorie Liu, and my work would be done. But I digress.
While I immediately fell in love with Laura, Carol was a different story. I heard that she was a great feminist hero; that Kelly Sue DeConnick was an amazing writer; that someone was doing something great with this old Marvel character; that her old name (Ms. Marvel) was being passed to a young Pakistani girl named Kamala, a Carol Danvers fangirl. I read the first trades of DeConnick’s Captain Marvel run, and I liked them, but I didn’t understand them. I just didn’t know who this Carol Danvers lady was, or why her new look, her new hair, her new everything, mattered so much.
So I read a bunch of other things for a while. X-23 pulled me into the modern X-Men ecosystem, and I was also grabbing the new Ms. Marvel series. Unstoppable Wasp piqued my interest because Elsa Charretier is a brilliant artist. I fell in love with both Greg Rucka and Nicola Scott from their work on the Wonder Woman: Rebirth title. I swooned over Amanda Conner’s work in Harley Quinn, Power Girl, and Starfire. I found out that Marjorie Liu has a title with Image (Monstress) and just about exploded.
But as my interests expanded, I kept coming back to Captain Marvel – to Carol. I’d read Carol in different places – particularly in Captain Marvel and the Carol Corps, where her deep connection with her team shredded me in the best ways – and I had connected with the character and more. Enough that when I found a used copy of the (out of print in paper, but available digitally) Marvel Masterworks edition of Carol’s original solo series, Ms. Marvel, I decided to give it a read. I’m not a huge fan of 70s and 80s comics, but I thought it would be academically interesting, and that it would give me a better grounding in the character than a Marvel wiki could. Actually enjoying the book was not on my radar.
I could not have been more wrong.
I thought that Ms. Marvel would be a whole bunch of Carol Danvers getting into scrapes and getting rescued by men, even though she had super powers. I thought it would be some “Oh my, dear me,” stereotypical women-written-by-men nonsense that I would roll my eyes and get through. I thought that I’d be bored halfway through and start skimming. Except that didn’t happen at all.
When the book starts, Carol Danvers has left her previous career with the Air Force and has taken up the position of editor at Woman magazine, a periodical under the purview of J. Jonah Jameson of Daily Bugle and Spider-Man hating fame. In the first two issues, Carol is completely unaware of her connection to Ms. Marvel. She comes across a bit as a wilting flower with her constant migraines (signalling an impending change into her alter-ego), but for someone who keeps waking up in strange places without a memory of how she got there, she’s holding it together well.
Carol is out and out sassy. She walks into the offices of Woman and absolutely expects to give orders and have them followed. She’s funny, taking Jonah’s bombastic behavior in stride and then doing exactly what the magazine needs her to do. She isn’t afraid to demand a salary due to her, and refuses to tie Woman down to its stereotypical concerns of “diets and recipes.”
Another detail I love is that all of them men in Carol’s orbit are secondary characters. She keeps company with Mike Barnett, goes on bikini-wearing trips with him and goes out for dinner, but if he’s a boyfriend, the text doesn’t really address it. When she brings him home with her in Issue 13, she refers to Mike as her “full time friend.”
The art in the first few issues is better than I expected it to be. There are a few problems – no one seems entirely sure how to deal with boobs, and the comic is SO wordy that it’s sometimes very difficult to track the flow of the dialogue.
Quite a lot has been said over the years about Carol’s original costume, such as this gem from the letters page:
“Question: where is a woman who wears long sleeves, gloves, high boots and a scarf (winter wear), and at the same time has a bare back, belly, and legs? The Arctic equator? That costume requires a few alterations.” (Ms. Marvel 8, Aug 1977)
But while her costume is oddly revealing, and villains swing her around by her scarf a ridiculous number of times, Carol is also shown being incredibly strong. In the first issue, fighting with Scorpion, Carol grabs Scorpion and swings him around before smashing him into a wall. Her posing is strong and dynamic, she has definition in her thighs that implies strength and balance.
Which is not to say that this comic is some kind of feminist masterpiece. In Issue 2, Carol is becoming increasingly concerned about her blackouts. She goes to see her friend and psychiatrist Michael Barnett. Mike hypnotises Carol, listens as she replays the entire story of how Mar-Vell shielded her from an explosion of alien tech, but is unable to shield her from the radiation; the radiation then melds her human physiology with Kree DNA. In her trance, Carol recounts to Mike how she is now transforming into Ms. Marvel, aware of the connection in her unconscious mind, if not her conscious one.
Mike wakes Carol up, and as Carol asks him what he has learned, he thinks to himself, “How can I tell her she’s the victim of some massive paranoid delusion?” He only believes what Carol has told him under hypnosis when she literally transforms into Ms. Marvel in his arms.
It’s hard to read this and not see that nothing has really changed between 1977 and 2017 in terms of how much men (do not) value the lived experience of women. Day after day, women explain their experiences of sexism to men and are told that they are imagining things. This phenomenon is, of course, not limited to sexism and the power dynamics between men and women; this is replicated every time a marginalized group attempts to speak to its oppressor. For those who are multiply marginalized (Black women, for example), the experience is even more difficult.
Mike never apologizes to Carol. This is probably the most realistic thing that happens in the comic.
By Issue 3, the art is coming into its own. A particular highlight, both in the issue and the book overall, is the opening splash. The issue picks up mid-fight between Carol and The Destructor; Carol is hauling herself up off the ground like a boxer hanging on the ropes. She’s digging her fingers into a light pole, fragments falling away, as she fights to stay standing. Art like this shows the strength and power that Carol has at her disposal.
The comic doesn’t have a regular penciler in this trade; the pencils switch every three issues, with others picking up one-shot duties. My favorite is Jim Mooney; this is convenient, as he drew six issues out of the fourteen. The weaker artists tend to skimp on backgrounds, leaving impact panels and less clearly defined figures and faces. A true joy in the book is Carmine Infantino’s work on issue 14. This particular story involves a great deal of delicate territory and Infantino gives Carol’s expressions a subtlety that gives the material an emotional nuance.
Gerry Conway wrote the first two issues and contributed to the plot of Issue 3, but Claremont had taken over scripting at this point; this is where the comic came to life for me. Instead of reading it for academic interest, I was intrigued to see what was going to happen and how Carol’s story would develop. Carol and Ms. Marvel are also becoming aware of each other; they begin to draw on each other’s skills and knowledge to defeat villains. The conflict between the two personalities was more interesting to me than the “How did I get here?” trope in the first two issues.
There’s an entire adventure (issues 8-10) that takes place primarily under a department store (MODOK is trying to reclaim leadership of A.I.M. and there’s nowhere else in New York to start that battle than under the secret A.I.M. base under the department store) and not a single joke is made about Carol going shopping. Be still my beating heart.
In issue 10, Carol’s job is suffering because Ms. Marvel is so busy fighting villains. Her associate editor is covering for her, but is clearly frustrated; she comments to an empty office: “Carol, oh, Carol – keep playing the no-show editor and your magazine’s had it.”
The overarching theme through the first 12 issues is Carol’s quest to understand who she is. In the first two issues Carol and Ms. Marvel have no awareness of each other. Afterwards, each woman is fully aware of the other, and their competing needs: Carol wants to do her job, make a difference at Woman and keep her apartment from burning down (again), while Ms. Marvel wants to be a superhero and act on the seventh sense that keeps alerting her to threats around the city. At times, either one will deliberately push for the shift between personalities to deal with a situation, but more often, the change is resisted. Each woman insists that her unique skills are necessary to handle whatever problem is before them, but fundamentally misunderstands the needs of the other.
Forty years after this comic was published, I still relate to this quandary. One of the greatest lies modern women have been told is that they can “have it all.” Piece after piece has been written explaining the toxic frustration of trying to do everything without adequate support from society. In my own life this has expressed itself in a complex way that can be distilled to one simple sentence: when I’m at work, I feel guilty for not being with my kids, but when I’m with my kids, I feel guilty for not being at work. And again, this comes from the place of a relatively privileged white girl; further marginalizations compound and complicate this issue immensely.
This conflict between Carol and Ms. Marvel comes to a head in issue 11, Carol’s seventh sense alerts her to danger; she sees that the space shuttle carrying her best friend will be destroyed, and her friend will die a horrible death. During the same vision, Ms. Marvel sees that the entire world would be destroyed if she does not intervene in a nearby fight. Carol wants to save her friend; Ms. Marvel takes over to save the world instead. Ms. Marvel faces continuous opposition from Carol but holds her off until a power burst from an artifact overwhelms her in the final moments of the fight. As she falls, Ms. Marvel transforms back into Carol, who knows that her chance to save her friend has passed. In the last panel of the issue, overwrought with grief and rage, Carol screams that she will kill them both – Hecate and Ms. Marvel.
In an interesting choice, Issue 13 opens with Carol returning home to see her parents. Only after a conversation with her mother do we see how the final battle with Hecate resolved; as Carol fights, she continues to use the strength of a Kree warrior, lifting a boulder over her head. Hecate points out these feats of strength and leads Carol to the realization that she and Ms. Marvel are one and the same. Carol realizes that during the accident that gave her these powers, her mind created Ms. Marvel as a shield to protect her (No one says dissociative identity disorder, but it’s clearly the vein in which Claremont was thinking). The reveal happens when Carol is fighting a (female) villain, grief stricken over the death of her (female) friend, in a moment that is framed by a safe conversation with her (female) parent.
The fact that Carol’s realization comes when she is surrounded by women matters to me in a deep and important way.
Much of the overarching theme of these last two issues in the volume focus on Carol’s relationship with her parents. In a story that’s now stereotypical, Carol’s father continues to see her as his “kitten,” a child who should be ornamental instead of helpful. Carol comments that it’s surprising that her father let a copy of Woman (her own magazine) into the house; her mother clarifies that the magazine belongs to her. “Your father wouldn’t be caught dead reading Woman,” Mom says. Carol clearly seeks her father’s approval at the same time that she is frustrated by his behavior, but doesn’t consider her mother’s until it is pointed out to her directly. The approval of a man, even for a forward-minded, feminist-positive hero, still takes implicit precedent – and Claremont’s writing makes this point clear without soapboxing the issue. This story isn’t showing Carol as someone with ‘Daddy issues’. It’s showing her reacting the way a lot of women do because of the systems and expectations in which they have been socialized.
The plot itself centers around Carol’s father. Dad is a contractor who discovers the building he’s working on is being made with slipshod materials to save enough cash to pay off the owner’s debts. In Issue 14, drawn by the incomparable Carmine Infantino, Carol and her father by turns fight off Steeplejack. Dad is literally thrown off the building and still demands that Ms. Marvel “put him down” even when he’s dangling in mid-air. Carol has to knock him out to get him to leave her alone long enough to fight off Steeplejack. She takes a bit of delight in doing it, too, something anyone with overbearing relatives can appreciate.
When the action is over, Carol (still as Ms. Marvel) is accepting coffee from a police officer when she sees her parents. Carol’s father is dismissive, and Carol bitterly wonders why she bothered to save him.
Carol’s mother, meanwhile, immediately sees through her daughter’s disguise. She doesn’t use this moment to congratulate her daughter on her feats of strength and daring that night, however; she begs Carol not to judge her father too harshly.
“Your father isn’t used to being saved by anyone – especially a woman…for all his faults, Joe is a good man. And in his own way, he loves you very much. Try to understand that.”
Women have been apologizing for men for a very long time. We are told that men don’t mean anything by their casual sexism and sideways dismissals of the experiences we live day to day. Women make excuses for the man in question; they say he has a good heart, that he has lots of female friends, and that he really just doesn’t mean to be this way. This telling women to accept things the way they are instead of challenging men to do better supports the patriarchy instead of tearing it down, making women complicit in the systems that oppress them.
Carol thinks to herself as her mother walks away:
“I…do, Mom. All I ever wanted was for Dad to accept me as I am, not as he wanted me to be. And now I know that no matter what I do, or how well I do it — he never will. He won’t change…And all of a sudden, I don’t care.”
To a modern reader, this feels so expected as to elicit an eyeroll. Powerful woman has Daddy issues, news at eleven, right? But in 1978, women had only been eligible for the Rhodes Scholarship for two years, marches were happening all over the country to support equal rights for women, and Naomi James, who had circumnavigated the world by herself and was only the second woman to do so, was denied membership in the Circumnavigator’s Club because of her gender. In that world, a woman stating that she didn’t care what her dad thought of her, standing as the final panel of a comic book, draws attention.
Throughout the book, I kept thinking of how often we dismiss minority characters as “the brown Ms. Marvel,” “the Puerto Rican Spider-Man,” “the girly Wolverine,” and “the black Iron Man.” What stood out as I was reading Ms. Marvel was this: Carol Danvers is a superhero; Carol Danvers is a woman. Carol Danvers is blonde. Those are three facts about her with no overlap. At no point reading this book did I think that Carol Danvers was a woman superhero. Carol Danvers was simply, as Brian Reed would later say, the best of the best.
When I started reading this book, I thought I’d read something academically interesting, which would show me the history of a character I’d come to love. Now, I would happily hand this collection to someone who wanted to know more about Carol, but I’d also recommend it to anyone looking for a good comic to read. Yes, early Claremont dialogue can be a little rough to adjust to, yes, the villains are a little…with some work and an overhaul, they might make it to C-list? But the internal conflict, the worry about how much was enough, the question of saving one person or saving the world; those elements are what make great stories. This comic isn’t just good for its time; this comic is fantastic now.
Kelly Sue DeConnick started her Captain Marvel run in 2012. Chris Claremont in 1977 and 1978 did not have the framework to write what DeConnick did in 2012; society has moved on and changed, even for all the things that have stayed the same. There is no question, however, that DeConnick’s run is built on what Claremont created in 1977. Carol is fierce; Carol is strong; Carol questions herself. Carol does not ever believe that she is enough. When her friend dies, Carol blames both Hecate (an external force) and Ms. Marvel (an internal force), saying that she will kill them both. Earlier in the trade, both she and Ms. Marvel have reflected on how entwined they are; they have considered that killing either one of them would destroy the other. Carol’s grief leads her to despise her very sense of self.
I’m jumping ahead here, but in the introduction to Volume 2 of this collection, Kelly Sue DeConnick discusses her thesis for her 2012 run on Carol. She initially felt that Ms. Marvel could be summed up by this statement: “Carol Danvers has something to prove.” Later, she realized that Carol is about something else entirely: “Carol Danvers is about the search for identity.”
In the beginning of this book, Carol has a fundamental misunderstanding of who she is. By the final panel, well, she may not know everything, but she is on the right path. She is on the beginning of a journey that will lead us to this line from Kelly Sue DeConnick’s run:
“Have you ever seen a little girl run so fast she falls down? There’s an instant, a fraction of a second before the world catches hold of her again…a moment when she’s outrun every doubt and fear she’s ever had about herself and she FLIES. In that one moment, EVERY little girl flies. I need to find that again. Like taking a car out into the desert to see how fast it can go, I need to find the edge of me and see where I belong.”